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On the Road with Heracles

Metropolitan Museum of Art
‘Heracles Driving Off the Cattle of Geryon’; engraving by Giulio Bonasone, sixteenth century

Middle Earth in a book title would suggest to most readers that it was about J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, and it is likely that the publisher of Graham Robb’s book had an eye on this market. Robb has taken the phrase over to describe the European realm of the ancient Celts, the group of tribal societies that arrived in France from the Upper Danube beginning around 600 BC. But the Celts had no Middle Earth. The name, which was Germanic in origin, had reached Tolkien through his work on Old and Middle English, and its diffusion to a broad public in modern times was entirely the result of his own capacious imagination.

What the Celts did have, as Robb emphasizes, were dozens of cities called Mediolanum, a name best known as the Latin for Milan in Italy but widely spread across the Celtic territories of Gaul that lay to the north. Both the popularity and the etymology of Mediolanum are shrouded in mystery. The first half of the name, understood as Latin, means “middle” or perhaps “half,” whereas the second part, on the face of it, would appear to mean “wool.” But Middle Wool or even Half Wool is certainly not Middle Earth. There is reason to think that the Celts may have understood this name as meaning “middle enclosure,” but again nothing about Middle Earth. Yet all these Mediolana, carefully positioned in the Celtic territories of Roman antiquity, seem to conjure up a secret and sacred geography. Graham Robb has now found a new and unexpected way to discover what might have been going on.

Hitherto Robb has enjoyed a solid reputation for his work on French literature (Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Arthur Rimbaud) and on the culture and history of France. Although Celtic Gaul was certainly a part of the evolution of France from antiquity onward, Robb’s new book is a bold departure from what he has done before. As he explains in his introduction, it all arose from plans for a bicycle trip to explore what was traditionally known as the Heraclean Road, the Via Heraclea. This was a legendary route that Heracles took from the southwestern part of the Iberian peninsula into continental Europe and across the Alps into Italy. One might well wonder how anyone could plan a cycling expedition over a mythical route that lacks any substantial literary or archaeological documentation, but Robb believes that he has been able to do exactly that. His book is a dense and breathless account of what he has discovered about his hero’s mythical itinerary. The thrill of his discovery sometimes overwhelms the clarity of his exposition, but author and reader alike share an exhilarating exploration of what is commonly called sacred geography.

In Greek mythology Heracles was very special. His mother was a mortal, Alcmene, whom Zeus had visited on one of his extramarital escapades, and so he began his tumultuous life as a hero rather than a god. Amphitryon, Alcmene’s husband, seemed not to mind, but Hera, who was not only Zeus’ wife but the deity whose fame (kleos) appeared to be enshrined in Heracles’ very name, conceived a fierce antipathy to her husband’s child. She sent large snakes to kill him, whereupon the baby Heracles promptly demonstrated the physical prowess for which he would later become famous by strangling the snakes as they coiled around him.

This was only the beginning of his legendary exertions. He was subsequently ordered to undertake twelve great labors, including clearing out the Augean Stables, subduing a lion, boar, and bull, and finding the apples of the Hesperides. He finally succumbed to a fiery death on a funeral pyre atop Mount Oeta in central Greece north of Parnassus. Once dead, Heracles became a god, after which his reputation continued to grow steadily. He became the chief rival to Dionysus in the Roman Empire. Both gods maintained their competitive edge even as the empire grew increasingly Christian.

Heracles, whom the Romans knew as Hercules, served to inspire both emperors and nations. The emperor Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192 AD, represented himself as a reincarnation of Heracles, complete with lionskin and club, and Heracles was believed to be the founder of the Celtic nation through a union with a certain Celtinê somewhere in France. The grandeur and diversity of this hero-god are reflected in the traditions of many places throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. He traveled widely to carry out his twelve labors. For the tenth, which was one of his most remote geographically, he went to the Straits of Gibraltar, known henceforth as the Pillars of Hercules. His task was to kill the three-headed giant Geryon, who lived on an island called Red (Erytheia), in the vicinity of ancient Gades (the modern port of Cádiz in southwest Spain). After slaying Geryon, Heracles was charged with driving Geryon’s cattle all the way across Europe into Italy. That meant an overland journey out of Spain, over the Pyrenees, through France, across the Alps, and down to Rome.

The imagined route that Heracles took for this prodigious cattle drive became known later as the Via Heraclea, Via Herculia, or Via Herculis, and no one has been able to say precisely where it went. The name of this route first appears in a treatise probably from the later fourth century BC and ascribed erroneously to Aristotle. Traces of the Italian route have been identified in the Apennine Mountains—which run from the north to the south of Italy—and where it is now duly recorded in the Barrington Atlas, which is the standard modern atlas of the classical world, but the European route has for the most part been enveloped in mythical mist.

In the sixth century BC a Greek poet, Stesichorus, wrote an epic work called Gêryonêis on Heracles’ confrontation with Geryon and the abduction of his cattle, but unfortunately only fragments survive. Nonetheless, there were enough of them to inspire the brilliant poet Anne Carson, with her professional knowledge of the classics, to create a superb verse novel, Autobiography of Red, over a decade ago. In the surviving fragments of a lost tragedy, Aeschylus had brought on the titan Prometheus to advise Heracles before his departure for Europe and provide helpful predictions of what the hero would find on the way.

Graham Robb’s new book equally owes its inspiration to the accounts of Heracles’ mission to the West. Although it is not a work of poetry, it is very much a work of imagination, tempered by astronomical and mathematical calculations as well as computer technology. Whether or not Robb has proven his point, and many will be skeptical, the exploration he describes is consistently exciting, leaving the reader poised between wonder and disbelief.

Robb outlines a geographical pattern of settlement and urbanization in ancient Gaul and Britain that he ascribes to the Celts, and the Druids in particular. It is distributed along a grid that is based on solstice lines—the lines of the sun’s rays at sunrise on the longest and shortest days in the year, which are known as the summer and winter solstice. No one doubts that the Celts were capable of plotting solstice lines, just as no one doubts that their predecessors at Stonehenge could do the same thing. But the detail that Robb brings to his exposition is unusual in reflecting his use of computerized mapping to generate hitherto unrecognized patterns.

Without computers but with comparable learning and enthusiasm William Stukeley had done something similar when he published in 1740 his Stone- henge, a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids. Stukeley’s date for Stonehenge was wrong by several millennia—it is now dated between 3000 and 2000 BC, when there were no Druids. Still, as a scholar has written recently, he “became obsessive about the role of Druids at Stonehenge,” while his views nonetheless seem “almost credible when compared with some of the really fanciful interpretations of the site.”1

Robb is, in many ways, the Stukeley of our age. He is no less obsessed with the Druids and their mathematical skills, and fortunately, unlike Stukeley, he is writing about a time when there really were Druids in Europe. What he proposes seems almost credible at times, and his concentration on the Via Heraclea as the key to his argument is not unlike Stukeley’s concentration on Stonehenge. Sacred geography is definitely not a mirage; nor are solstice lines. The problem lies in relating these lines to points that are fixed by either historical data or archaeological remains.

Moving from myth to documented history on the ground is a treacherous business, although stories about the irrecoverable past undoubtedly had, and continue to have, an impact on the historical past and present. The Via Heraclea might have been worth trying out for a cycling expedition, but Robb’s assumption that the original path indicated in ancient texts could be recovered “if the surviving sections are projected in both directions” is highly questionable. We simply do not have the necessary sections of his imagined itinerary, and detecting an original path for a hero whose mythical exploits antedated the Druids in Europe is well-nigh impossible.

As recently as the 1960s Heracles’ mythic route was generally believed, on the basis of the text in pseudo-Aristotle, to have passed along the south coast of France between Marseille and Monaco, whence the feisty hero would have driven Geryon’s stolen cattle down into Italy. Prometheus’ speech to Heracles in Aeschylus’ lost play seemed to bear this out. He foretold that the hero would pass through the land of the Ligurians, who were Celts in southern France, and that he would overcome their forces through a hail of stones sent by Zeus to help him. This seemed to most readers a clear allusion to the rocky plain of La Crau just north of the coastal road in present-day Provence that Heracles was thought to have been taking.

But in 1962 a French historian and geographer, Roger Dion, argued that the Via Heraclea belonged farther north and crossed the Alps precisely at the pass of Mont Genèvre on what is now the Franco-Italian border in the French Alps.2 His argument was not based on any archaeological evidence but solely on the historical testimony for Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. Although Dion convinced some historians but by no means the majority, his work is fundamental for Robb’s mapping. Hannibal had apparently seen himself as a new Heracles, not least because of the Carthaginians’ identification of the Punic god Melqart of Tyre with the Greek hero-god, as commemorated in cults at the Phoenician settlement at Gades (Cádiz) as well as on the Sacred Promontory at Cape St. Vincent (now in southern Portugal).

Graham Robb/Norton
A map from The Discovery of Middle Earth showing the route that Graham Robb ­proposes for Heracles’ mythic journey from southwestern Spain across the Alps to Italy. Cape St. Vincent, referred to in the review, is at the Sacred Promontory, and Mont Genèvre is at the Matrona Pass.

In 218 BC Hannibal took his army north from New Carthage—today’s Cartagena in southeastern Spain—toward the Pyrenees. After crossing the mountains into Gaul, he was on his way toward the Alps, with his army and elephants, when, according to the stories told by Celts in the region of the Rhône, a hero appeared to him and showed him where to go. This epiphany has been understood to refer to Heracles, although our source, the historian Polybius, does not name him. As a pro-Roman Greek, Polybius would certainly have been reluctant to identify a famous Greek hero as Hannibal’s patron deity, even if the story had its roots in Hannibal’s attachment to Heracles’ Punic avatar, Melqart. Robb wants Heracles to begin his journey from the Sacred Promontory at Cape St. Vincent and proceed in a straight line to Mont Genèvre before descending into Italy (see the map from Robb’s book above). This is what he declares to be the “original, mythic incarnation” of the road. Unfortunately this will not work.

  1. 1

    Timothy Darvill, “Ever Increasing Circles: The Sacred Geographies of Stonehenge and Its Landscape,” in Science and Stonehenge, edited by Barry Cunliffe and Colin Renfrew (Oxford: British Academy, 1997), p. 167. 

  2. 2

    Roger Dion, “La voie héracléenne et l’itinéraire transalpin d’Hannibal,” in Hommages à Albert Grenier, edited by Marcel Renard (Brussels: Collection Latomus, 1962). 

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